The mystery of why 200,000 antelopes in Kazakhstan dropped to the floor dead back in 2015 caused a major investigation. Scientists have now come to believe that the mass die-off, which wiped out the majority of the world’s population of Saiga antelopes, was caused by environmental factors.
The cause of death was originally discovered to be from a bacterial infection. While this is true, environmentalists have uncovered data which suggests that uncommonly high temperatures and humidity in the region may have also be responsible. The bacterium usually lives within the antelope’s blood stream without causing a problem but the increased numbers had caused septicaemia, or blood poisoning, in the animals.
These factors were also found to occur in Asia twice previously, both preceding another mass die-off of the same species of antelope. Scientists are now investigating if the high temperatures and moisture in the air are allowing the bacteria causing the deaths to proliferate and enabling it to infect huge numbers at a time. Professor Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College London has been quoted as saying that it is “very, very likely to happen again”.
Prof Kock has warned that there is the possibility of a complete extinction if this happens again before the antelope are able to stabilise their numbers. Due to this he has stated the urgent need to halt other threats to the antelope’s lives such as “poaching and the spread of diseases from livestock”. These particular antelopes are already classed as critically endangered and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) state that this is due to the illegal hunting for horns for use in Chinese medicine as well as loss of habitat. Scientists also believe that other wildlife species similar to the antelope, such as reindeer, could also be at risk of these mass die-offs.
Steffen Zuther, co-researcher at the Frankfurt Zoological Society has told us that “the triggering of such mass mortality events shows that not much can be done to prevent them from occurring” and that this is why “it is important to maintain populations of sufficient size to survive such catastrophes.”